Journey Among Warriors by Eve Curie

This is the first of an occasional series of book reviews, the focus of which is books that are have faded into undeserved obscurity….

She was the only woman for some three hundred miles in each direction, having arrived in the Libyan desert with Winston’s son, Major Randolph Churchill. It was November 1941. For many miles there was scarcely a bush to crouch behind and when the elegant Mademoiselle Curie needed to answer the call of nature, she had to be driven to an empty patch of desert four miles away. Randolph Churchill, playing the discreet gentleman, turned his back. Eve Curie – daughter of Marie, the discoverer of radium − was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and reading about her as she sat in the north African sunshine hammering away at the typewriter keys, dressed in slacks and a snood, I began to fall under her spell. I imagined the fragrance of French perfume amidst the diesel fumes and dust.

I like to think I would have set out on such a journey with her kind of eagerness, but the truth is that, while I like travelling itself well enough once embarked, I am increasingly reluctant to leave the comforts of home. Eve Curie, by contrast set out from America with a spring in her step, despite the fact that she, a Frenchwoman, was tasked with writing dispatches directly in English for the first time. She packed with markedly more enthusiasm than I do: limited by Pan American Airways to forty-four pounds of luggage in weight, her clunky typewriter, assorted documents and heavy French-English dictionary reduced the allowance to just 29. She packed woollen stockings and underwear for Russia and lightweight gear for the tropics. Woollen slacks and a snood – no hat.

So it was that she sat expectantly on a Pan-Am flying boat in New York harbour on Monday 10 November 1941, waiting for the dawn and take-off. As well as writing a series of despatches from across the world at war, she was also charged with attempting to write her first book in English. Her only other venture into writing a book was a biography of her famous mother and that, Madame Curie, was written in French before the war. Journey Among Warriors – her account of her war correspondent’s life − was also to be her last book, although she lived to a great age. Born in Paris in 1904, Eve Curie died, in New York, in 2007.

Journey Among Warriors is a reassuring presence by my side as I write this. Published in 1943, it is long (522 pages of paper as thin as toilet tissue). The index, mostly of names and places, runs to 18 pages. I read it travelling to Istanbul by train: as we rattled across the Hungarian plain, horses and carts shambling through a flat landscape under an untroubled sky, she was sharing with me a much more intrepid journey. A sombre-coloured map in the inside boards of the book plots her route: west Africa, Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, Teheran, Moscow, Delhi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Chungking – and eventually back again in the spring of 1942.

It is evident that Marie Curie’s reputation is a passport that opens many doors. Eve notes at one point that ‘the name of Curie had helped me in my work’, a fact which didn’t always please her rival correspondents. She was ‘treated by the Russians,’ she quoted one of them as saying, ‘like the Crown Princess.’ In India, for example, she met Gandhi, Nehru, General Wavell, among others; in Russia she visited Tolstoy’s house with a descendant of the great Russian writer. Later, Eve Curie would joke that she was the only one of her immediate family of five who was not awarded the Nobel Prize. She is, nonetheless, a writer who can make you feel that you are travelling with her, sharing the discomforts and danger. She is good on landscape, never failing to describe what she sees from an aircraft window: flying over the Egyptian desert she noted that the lower valley of the Nile ‘was miraculous fertility versus dry desert – it was life versus death’. Flying in a BOAC flying boat from Dubai she describes ‘the translucent Arabian Sea…tinted with colours so magnificent that they seemed false and treacherous, as if they contained poison.’ Over Burma she is uplifted by the sight of the Lashio plateau, surrounded by a circle of hills: ‘it was so beautiful,’ Eve thought, ‘that I felt like staying there all my life… We landed on an airfield of dark, red earth, which looked like dried blood.’

In Russia, she shows early signs of frostbite and her Red Army minder, Lieutenant Liuba Meston, demands that she rub her nose with wool and snow immediately – ‘until it becomes red, until it hurts’. Eve recognises that Liuba would be most anxious she didn’t leave Mother Russia ‘minus my nose’. It is deep in a bleak midwinter, a time so cold that an old lady Eve meets can smile at the prospect of what she calls ‘a real Russian winter. A winter to freeze Russia’s enemies. A winter to freeze Hitler.’

The Russian section of the book is both heart-warming (the indomitable spirit of the nation) and chilling (the bitter Russian winter and the sheer effort of staying alive) and it makes compelling reading. Conditions are tough: the Grand Hotel in Kuybyshev is anything but grand, with the heating not working. Eve puts on ‘an additional sweater’ and sits down at the typewriter at the table, trying to ignore ‘the innumerable stains on the old tablecloth …the noise of the radios, the banging of the doors… the quarrels, the yelling, laughing…’ and the overpowering smell. Flying to Moscow is a spartan experience: ‘the metal seat was cold. The window, dimmed by frost, was cold. Our teeth became cold whenever we spoke, and our frozen breath looked like white steam.’ Opposite is a Russian officer whose ‘jaws were actually shaking’. Eve realised that ‘the Russians were cold too’.

Later, she visits the room where Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina and finds that it had been used until recently as a mess hall by German officers. The windows were broken and stuffed with straw. Elsewhere in the house there were rooms that showed the Germans had tried to set the iconic building alight. Nearby, grouped around the writer’s tomb, were 83 German graves half buried by snow: ‘The Reich’s soldiers certainly have deserved to be buried close to Leo Tolstoy’ was one German officer’s view when objections were made. A large wooden marker declared that the men had ‘gefallen für Grösser Deutschland’ – ‘They fell for Greater Germany’.

There is an intensity about Eve Curie’s work; you feel that the pain of France’s ignominious defeat in 1940 drives her on. She is the first woman to be taken to the Libyan front. She comes down with ‘malignant malaria’ caught in Nigeria; interviews German POWs on the Russian front, and is advised to keep her distance because of lice; she drives towards Rangoon as the Japanese are closing in on the Burmese city. She interviews at the drop of the hat she doesn’t have: Air Marshals, Ministers of State, Hurricane pilots in the desert, ambassadors, Free French commanders, Polish generals, the Shah of Iran, ‘the second best ballerina’ in the USSR, groups of refugees, Chou En-Lai and Chiang Kai-shek in China. In India she asks a secretary for an interview with Gandhi and is surprised to be asked, ‘Can you walk?’ It seemed an odd question: ‘I answered, however, affirmatively. Without any question I could walk. I had, in fact, been walking for years.’ In the event it transpired that ‘Mr Gandhi will take his daily walk with you tomorrow morning at seven.’

To many, the gender of the New York Herald Tribune’s special correspondent was a shock. In Kyaikto, Burma, a young English lieutenant stared at Eve ‘in bewilderment and distress. He whispered: “Now, let’s put this straight. We were expecting from Rangoon, Captain Nyar and the war correspondent for the Herald Tribune and Allied Newspapers Ltd. What happened to the chap?”’ Eve enjoyed revealing that she was ‘the chap’. In reading Journey Among Warriors we are never allowed to forget that the writer is a woman, and a glamorous and exceptional one at that: in photographs she has that quality that singles out the truly beautiful – she looks different each time, but always exudes an air of resilient, striking self-possession. Early in her journey, in Darfur, having been invited to dine at the Residency, she worries that she ‘had no iron to press my evening dress (and no shoes or bag to wear with it, anyway.)’ The further she travels, however, the less exercised she is about her clothes: invited to the High Commissioner for Palestine’s Residence in Jerusalem, she looked at ‘the women in elaborate evening dresses, the men in black ties.’ She, on the other hand ‘wore my all-purpose checked suit that was abominably wrinkled and covered with dust.’ The cold she had caught had made her face swell and reddened her nose. No doubt, despite the apparent handicaps of streaming nose and crushed dress, she was a fascinating figure, listening intently to those who merited it and talking from a widening experience of the war she was following across the world.

I happened on Eve Curie by chance when I was researching the desert war. That research involved reading a series of accounts by male war correspondents, each one heavy with descriptions of shellfire, tanks, army manoeuvres, and constant frantic journeys across the sands of Libya. Eve Curie provides something quite different. For a start, there is a clear sense of sustained purpose in her travelling – she is not engaged in a hectic chase in the wake of dusty army convoys wandering hither and thither across the desert; Eve Curie’s itinerary was methodical and considered, and it gave a unique perspective on the war in the Middle East, Russia and Asia. While she was away, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the World War became truly global. The Frenchwoman that she was grieved over the events of 1940, while her adopted American side gleaned hope from the resistance of the Russians, Chinese and British. Her book ends with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: ‘it was for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought had thus far so nobly advanced.’

I took Journey Among Warriors with me on my rail journey to Turkey, confident that she would prove a good friend crossing borders at midnight and walking through the cities of eastern Europe. I’ve always warmed to female travel companions – Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell spring to mind. Eve Curie, however, was different. She never wrote another book over the next 65 years of her life. Her life thereafter was not a literary one – my heart sank when I realised that there were no other books of hers to turn to. Her first occupation was as a concert pianist − strangely you get little sense of a musical background in her writing. In the latter stages of the war she was active in the Free French Army. Thereafter she worked for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and UNICEF.

What she wanted to say to the world was confined to her loving biography of her mother and her painstaking, detailed, opinionated, evocative and spirited account of a year of wartime travel in distant lands. The warriors amongst whom she journeyed would have recognised her energy, sharp intellect and warm heart, and been stirred by her presence. Later, those who read her book of wartime travels would have realised that she was a woman who could write with passion and honesty and who had the brightest of literary futures, but who chose to set out on a different journey.

RICHARD KNOTT’s admiration for war correspondents stretches from Alan Moorehead to Marie Colvin. He is only too aware of how such a life was not for him. His most recent books are The Sketchbook War (about the wartime experiences of a group of war artists and the plan to keep them alive), and The Trio about three famous war correspondents.